Lords on Safari: A Review of the Books used in my Capstone Strategic Management Seminar

Now that the semester is almost over, I will assess the two books I assigned in my capstone strategic management seminar for fourth year UTSC undergraduate management majors. The textbook was Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel’s Strategy Safari, 2nd edition (Financial Times Prentice Hall UK, 2009) and it was accompanied by Walter Kiechel’s The Lords of Strategy (Harvard Business Press, 2010). This review represents my opinion. Though I was influenced by students’ reactions to the books, I take full responsibility.

The authors of Strategy Safari, whom for brevity I will refer to by the first letter of their surnames as MAL, had a terrific idea. Strategic management is a field that tolerates a great deal of diversity in substantive focus and methodological approach. They divided the field up into 10 “schools,” or conceptual approaches, and provided a portrait of each, outlining the major authors and their works, summarizing its major assumptions, critiquing it, and then offering an assessment of its contribution. The ten schools are indeed very diverse, the set of authors surveyed for each school extensive, the critiques pointed, and the assessment of contributions usually fair-minded.

Unfortunately, there are a number of features that detract from Strategy Safari’s value as a textbook, particularly for undergraduates. MAL did not state clearly at the outset Strategy Safari’s objective or its intended readership. Because the publisher makes available an instructor’s manual and set of powerpoints, we can infer it was intended as a textbook. If undergraduates are the target audience, then MAL tried to pack too much into the treatment of every school, for example beginning the chapter on the positioning school with a nice-to-know nine page (pp. 89-97) discussion of military maxims. As a consequence the book often reads like a literature review aimed at doctoral students. MAL could have satisfied both audiences by discussing each school in terms of one or two foremost scholars (Porter representing the positioning school) in the core of each chapter and relegating the literature review to an appendix to the chapter.

A book like Strategy Safari is most effective if it illustrates the ten different schools with compelling case material. Unfortunately, the case material is often far from compelling. The major case in the instructor’s manual is “Robin Hood,” a based-on-a-true-story case about a mediaeval rebel, aimed at students who have had no prior exposure to strategy. The chapter on the entrepreneurial school, for example, incorporates Mintzberg’s studies of strategy making from the 1930s to the 1970s in Steinberg’s, a Montreal-based supermarket chain, and Canadelle, a Montreal-based manufacturer of what were once called “foundation garments.” Given Mintzberg’s long career at McGill, it may well be that in empirical research, as in real estate, nothing propinqs like propinquity. Nevertheless, these particular examples now appear as dated exemplars of the “Duddy Kravitz school of entrepreneurship.” (Personal disclosure: my students had no idea whom I was referring to but older readers might.)

In MAL’s version of the entrepreneurial school, strategy making is centred in the CEO. That was certainly true for the Duddy Kravitz school of entrepreneurship, in which most of the employees were unskilled laborers making minimum wage. But that is far from the situation at high-tech or Internet startups, where most of the employees are skilled professionals. Contrast the number of Microsoft millionaires with the number of Steinberg millionaires. So being out of date has consequences for the conceptual framework developed.

MAL would have stimulated much greater interest on the part of my students if they had chosen leading-edge contemporary firms (Apple and IBM are two obvious ones) and applied the different schools to the evolution of each. Indeed, this is what my students are doing in their papers.

This approach of applying different conceptual lenses to an empirical context, be it an institution or a sequence of events, has a distinguished precursor: Graham Allison’s deconstruction of the Cuban Missile Crisis to illustrate his three models of decision-making. Allison had the advantage that even though the Cuban Missile Crisis happened half a century ago, its world-in-the-balance storyline continues to stimulate interest, in a way that is not the case for Sam Steinberg (or even, had Mintzberg studied him, Sam Bronfman).

Mintzberg is well known for his advocacy of emergent strategy, discussed at length under the rubric of the learning school, as well as for his critique of strategic planning, the core of his chapter on the planning school. I find the former very convincing but the latter much less so. Mintzberg’s critique of strategic planning was published in 1994 and took aim at large scale corporate strategic planning exercises conducted in the 70s and 80s. Since then the importance of information as a factor of production has become obvious. Information is all that many leading-edge companies (Google, Facebook) now produce. Technology enables companies to capture vast amounts of information about their customers. Data base management and spreadsheet software have become vastly more powerful.

The public and non-profit sectors have also made great strides in generating and using information. Examples that come to mind are performance management systems in the public sector starting with Compstat and finding more recent expression in NYC’s Mayor’s Management Report, the US Government’s data.gov initiative to make public sector data bases available for citizen use, and the Gates Foundation’s emphasis on generating data and using it to evaluate its programs. Metrics matter more than ever before.

MAL summarize their critique of the planning school with the italicized statement “Because analysis is not synthesis, strategic planning has never been strategy making” (p. 81). For them, the analysis of data is fundamentally different from the creative synthesis expressed in the choice of an organizational strategy. I would put it differently. Synthesis follows analysis like the left foot follows the right (a claim MAL makes about the relationship between strategy and implementation). There is a constant interplay between the generation and analysis of data and strategic choice. Mintzberg’s 1994 book was titled “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning” but its sequel could well be titled “Planning Reborn as Metrics.”

Readers familiar with Duddy Kravitz will also recall the adage “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” MAL included many instances of what they felt were spoonfuls of sugar: cartoons to start each chapter; the extended safari metaphor, which incorporated poetry and designated an animal to refer to each school; and a plethora of conceptual diagrams. For me all of these intended spoonfuls of sugar were, to use another metaphor, rococo ornaments that made it hard to see the structure of the intellectual edifice MAL were trying to build. I thought the cartoons were sometimes not relevant to the chapter, the safari metaphor was overwrought, the poetry was too cute, and the diagrams were imprecise and unclear (such as those on pages 79, 34, 162, 202, 225, 342, 344, 349, 384, 386, 391). I would add that I think one problem afflicting the entire strategic management field, and not just MAL, is the overuse of unclear conceptual diagrams.

To conclude: MAL would do much better to cut to the chase, base the exposition of each school on a small number of key writers, use up-to-date examples and carry them through the entire text, relegate the extensive literature reviews to appendices to each chapter, and be much more sparing in their use of cartoons, metaphors, and diagrams.

This brings me to Kiechel’s The Lords of Strategy. Keichel was not trying to write a textbook, but rather what he called a “secret intellectual history of the new corporate world.” By that he meant he was trying to tell the story of the academics and practitioners, particularly consultants, who developed the field of strategy management beginning in the mid-60s. Kiechel believes that many of these people, for example Bruce Henderson of the Boston Consulting Group, are not well known in business circles, but their stories would be of interest. Unlike MAL, who dealt exclusively with ideas, Kiechel organized his book around the three foci of ideas, organizations, and people. Thus, not only do we learn about the BCG growth-share matrix, but also about the early days of BCG and how the consultants developed it. Similarly, we learn about Michael Porter’s intellectual journey back and forth across the Charles River (between HBS on the right bank and the Economics Department on the left) and how it led to his theory of strategic positioning. Kiechel thus was following the practice of intellectual historians, not only writing about disembodied ideas, but also dealing with their originators and their organizational context. The overall verdict of the students, which I share, was that it served as a valuable supplement to Strategy Safari, and made the material come alive.

I offer two minor criticisms. As might well be explained by Kiechel’s Harvard degrees, career at Harvard Business Press, and HBP’s publication of the book, there was a strong emphasis on Harvard as academic institution and Boston-based consultants (Boston Consulting Group and Bain Associates) as practitioners. Perhaps it was a bit too Harvard or Boston-centric. Second, Kiechel’s writing is often ironic and subtle, for example his chapter on strategic management and the financial crisis of 2008-09. The argument goes back and forth for several pages before Kiechel concludes that strategic management was partially responsible. While there is nothing wrong with irony or subtlety per se, in a classroom context, a more direct statement of the argument would have been preferable.

No texts are ever perfect. The students and I worked hard to master both Strategy Safari and The Lords of Strategy. And we learned a lot about strategic management in the process. Based on the high caliber of the presentations I have heard, I am looking forward to receiving the students’ papers. And these books will be least partially responsible for this outcome.

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